For Your Pleasure

Roxy Music and the 70s

Virginia Plain – Part 5

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dylan 1
Oh a false clock tries to tick out my time
To disgrace, distract, and bother me
And the dirt of gossip blows into my face
And the dust of rumors covers me
But if the arrow is straight
And the point is slick
It can pierce through dust no matter how thick
So I’ll make my stand
And remain as I am
And bid farewell and not give a damn.

-Bob Dylan, ‘Restless Farewell’, The Times They Are a-Changin (1964).

Every decade popular music re-experiences what Pete Townshend called “the bloody explosion” – the wonderful collision of music, energy and sex, the desire to get out of your head, break chains, kill boredom, be free. ‘Virginia Plain’ is a 70s road movie about that bloody explosion, and it is in the details of its flamboyance that is has been most celebrated. The song performed a career-defining double for the band: the university crowd bought the first album Roxy Music by the truck-load; and the kids bought ‘Virginia Plain’, not once but twice, propelling it to #4 in the charts in 1972, and then five years later their younger brothers and sisters took it to #11. This was cross-pollination of a kind that only happens once or twice in a band’s career, and it provided Roxy with longevity  in a tough and fickle business, re-uniting art, commerce, and accessibility most fully 10 years later in 1982 with Avalon.

In the meantime ‘Virginia Plain’ had to conclude its 2.58 minutes of pop art lunacy and Roxy had to get on with the business of taking a hit album and single on the road. Onwards and upwards and over to America, be damned, the country of origin for much, but not all, of ‘Virginia Plain’s imagery. One of the unexpected surprises of writing about VP over the past few months is the sheer depth and weight of its lyrical content – the five blog entries have totaled the same page count as that written for the first album Roxy Music. One song equaling one album! What a trip. And so it is fitting now to move on to the riches of ‘Pyjamarama’ and For Your Pleasure, as we arrive at the conclusion of our roller-coaster ride, destination reached, a place where Bryan Ferry, adopting the words of Bob Dylan, will make my stand/and remain as I am.Screen Shot 2017-07-02 at 9.30.02 AMAnd you may ask yourself
Where does that highway go to?
– ‘
Once in a Lifetime (Talking Heads/Eno)

Well, that highway could go something like this:

I: Make me a deal: The first verse presents the art project Roxy Music as they negotiate a music contract. As desperate as the band are to make the big time, the narrator reckons he may be making a deal with the devil. The verse cuts like a knife: make it/take it/show it/blow it.

II: What’s real and make belief: The journey kicks in, we lurch towards money, America, fame, and a walk with God. Don’t judge me or mess with my pride, the writer tells his Maker – isn’t it all just fiction anyway? The band hit the big time, leave Baby Jane in the dust and head for Rio. Take me/take me/take me.

III: Sinking fast: Enter teenage waste land for a hipster jive with fame. Take a trip to the dead desert for the Last Picture show; shake hands with dead and disposable rebels; drive in your mummified car and visit the ghosts of the sheer and the chic.  Trying/jiving/driving (drive-in).

IV: Reach For Something New: Shaking off the vibes from the previous verse, we now enjoy the view from mountain peak, enjoying exclusive access to those blue casino floors. Oh wow! We are characters in the Great Gatsby, reaching for something new. Burn those blue jeans, slaps on some lipstick and join the revolution. Me and you/just we two.

V: Far Beyond the Pale Horizon
Far beyond the pale horizon
Some place near the desert strand
And where my Studebaker takes me
That’s where I’ll make my stand but wait
Can’t you see that Holzer mane?
What’s her name, Virginia Plain?

Verse 5 is a consolidation of the ideas and images that have taken us to this mythical place beyond the pale horizon. By the journey’s conclusion, Ferry has shared his dreams (Americana, fame), influences (jazz, dance, cars), and fears (clutching at straws, sinking fast). The song serves as a psychological review of an artist’s state of mind as it becomes aware of a radical change brewing on the horizon.  Thankfully Ferry would continue this self-interrogation right through Roxy’s first five albums and beyond. The reason why ‘Virginia Plain’ is not cited as an example of meta-analysis in the same manner as, say, ‘Mother of Pearl’, is that the music is locomotive straight, lots of fun and catchy enough to captivate the ear on first listening without necessarily having to worry about the detail.

Eschewing a chorus in favor of a thrashing two-chord verse romp, ‘Virginia Plain’s forward moment is aided by a sentence structure that emphasizes the accents within each line. Look at the first three lines of each stanza and you see the repeating 8/7/8 pattern:

/           /     /     /    /      /      /            /
Make me a deal and make it straight [8]
All signed and sealed, I’ll take it [7]
To Robert E. Lee I’ll show it [8]

Take me on a roller coaster [8]
Take me for an airplane ride [7]
Take me for a six day wonder [8]

Throw me a line I’m sinking fast [8]
Clutching at straws can’t make it [7]
Havana sound we’re trying [8]

Flavours of the mountain streamline [8]
Midnight blue casino floors [7]
Dance the cha cha through till sunrise [8]

Far beyond the pale horizon [8]
Some place near the desert strand [7]
And where my Studebaker takes me [9]

Stanza five breaks the pattern for no reason other than “studebaker” is a bit of a mouthful! With this movement forward we eventually arrive at our destination, that mysterious place beyond the pale horizon. ‘Pale’ is an interesting word choice because being pale is to be without color: “lacking the usual intensity of color due to fear,” (Cambridge). To be beyond the pale is to “travel outside of a boundary. To leave behind all the rules and institutions of English society,” (Urbandictionary). The Irish origin of the word identifies The Pale as a geographical district for the well-heeled and educated; to live beyond The Pale was to be part of the lower social classes and, presumably, live among the uneducated and the Great Unwashed. Bryan Ferry, channeling his creative energies into a new style rock band, states his desire to seek out the new and leave polite society behind, break the chains of conformity, and live life on the edge with his new art. If this was biographical criticism then we have the coal-miner’s son trying to re-invent himself and leave behind his working-class background and origins. He takes us with him to party on the midnight blue casino floors and greet the pink flamingo morning,  onwards and outwards as the day brightens (pale horizon) and intensifies (desert strand). Tracing both the desire and distrust of fame, Roxy Music move beyond the pale horizon and land “some place near” the desert strand. And where my Studebaker takes me…Screen Shot 2017-07-02 at 9.31.43 AMAcutely aware of the cruel nature of fame’s double-edged sword as lived by James Dean, Baby Jane, and Robert Johnson (he of devil-deal making) our singer/songwriter hero rides into the final scene of ‘Virginia Plain’ in his (un)trusty Studebaker, comically echoing the words of Bob Dylan and General Custer as he does so:  And where my Studebaker takes me/That’s where I’ll make my stand. Ferry is referencing Bob Dylan’s song ‘Restless Farewell’, the last track on the seminal album The Times They Are a-Changin (1964). The song was written by Dylan in anger in response to a newspaper article that he felt contained a number of hurtful comments and untruths. Dylan’s is a song of confession and moving on,  of saying, this is me, I’ve done my best, that’s all I can do, that’s how I am: Oh a false clock tries to tick out my time/To disgrace,/distract, and bother me/And the dirt of gossip blows into my face/So I’ll make my stand/And stay as I am. Ferry would have been well familiar with the song  – “[Dylan] brought poetry into pop music,” he told the Telegraph after completing an album of Dylan covers in 2007 – and the singer uses the sentiment to define his own professional modis operandi: remain as I am/bid farewell/not give a damn.

The problem for Ferry of course is that he does give a damn, and was sensitive to early criticisms of Roxy Music as a fake trumped-up band, dressing up, lacking talent, not paying dues.  At the time of ‘Virginia Plain’s composition, Ferry explained the criticism away as Roxy being an art-project first and a pop band second: “I came into pop music from a different angle. And a lot of people still resent me for it. That was one of the strengths and also the cross that I was sort of impaled on,” (Rogan, 44). This observation is written into the song as a statement of independence, echoing Bob Dylan’s make my stand/remain as I am. Years later the criticism continued and intensified. In 1978, Ferry, sporting an LA tan, mirror sunglasses and fashion-model girlfriend (Jerry Hall) experienced a ground-shift in his support base, and a deep suspicion was cast over his ability to speak – or have empathy with – his fans and ordinary people. At the time of the Queen’s Jubilee and the punk rock explosion, “entertainment” and artifice in rock and pop was under attack, as it had been when Roxy started out in 1971 during the earnest scraggly beard era. Authenticity was identified as political and class-based. Street-cred was everything. Even the best music writers were hard-core drug users (NME scribes Nick Kent and Charles Shaar Murray were heroin and meta-amphetamine addicts, respectively). Unfortunately, Ferry took the bait and errors in judgement was made. Scrambling for direction, the singer grew a beard to promote one of his best and toughest solo recordings, ‘Sign of the Times‘ – growing a beard in 1977/8 was like putting a sign on your head that read BORING OLD FART. Interviews with the singer were printed in a harsh unedited format that made you feel like you were eavesdropping on a Church confessional. In fact one article was actually called Darkness Falls: Ferry in the Confessional, and reads like ‘Virginia Plain’s deal with the devil had now gone all horribly wrong, and the song’s lost idols and ghosts were now closing in on the pop idol: “If people hate me, fuck them” he said. “I know how good I am, and as long as I have faith in myself, I’ll continue. And, as far as I’m concerned at the moment, everybody else can just go and fuck themselves” (Melody Maker, 1978). Markedly prophetic, the sentiment in ‘Virginia Plain’ is both open (where my Studebaker takes me) and defiant (That’s where I’ll make my stand). It is also forward looking (far beyond the pale horizon) and exciting (but wait). And then it posits that final question…custer
That’s where I make my stand… Battle of the Little Bighorn (The Custer Fight) by Charles Marion Russell

But wait…

There’s a wonderful moment in ‘Virginia Plain’ when Roxy Music asks us, the listener, if we are going to share in this new future:

And where my Studebaker takes me
That’s where I’ll make my stand but wait
Can’t you see that Holzer mane?
What’s her name, Virginia Plain?

One of the many gifts of Bryan Ferry’s song-craft is his belief in his art, and his willingness to share his most intimate feelings, joys, fears and inadequacies. For this he is on par with his heroes Bob Dylan and John Lennon, men who often stumbled in public but always strove to tell the truth as close as they could perceive it at the time. This level of self-interrogation takes guts and no shortage of humor to stay the course. Our hero rides into scene on his (untrusty) Studebaker to beat the critical insurgence coming from the South. In a quest for understanding, he turns to address his audience:

Can’t you see that Holzer mane?

Baby Jane Holzer, the signifier being her hair (not eyes or smile) but the appendage to which Warhol’s superstar is most famous for. Are you, the listener (just we two), seeing this as I do?

What’s her name, Virginia Plain?

The age old songs-about-women is both celebrated and undercut: undercut in that the mystery of the girl is never revealed in the song, nor mentioned at all in the romantic sense. This is not ‘Sweet Caroline’ as a mystery woman, or ‘Ruby’ as she takes her love to town, or even love object ‘Peggy Sue’.  This is a love story between singer and audience: Just as two flamingos look the same, me and you/just we too/got to reach for something new.  Do you see what I see, or more importantly, do you see how I see it? For I am everything that I hear, read and watch – I am the Great Gatsby; I am the Last Picture Show; I am the teenage rebel; I am the New York art scene in the 1960s; I am James Dean; I am a flight to Rio; I am Andy Warhol.

Just look at the surface of my paintings and films… And there I am.

maryln wink 2
Credits: Pete Townshend, Rolling Stone interview, 1968; Roxy Music promo and in the studio with Chris Thomas, 1972, More Dark Than Shark; Battle of the Little Bighorn (The Custer Fight) by Charles Marion Russell; Marilyn Munroe photographed by  Philippe Halsman.

Titbits

 

If Roxy Music never wrote a good song the rest of their careers, they still have that, and it’s great.
-John Lydon, interview, 2012

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